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Foreign Policy

China Policy Will be Higher on Obama’s Second Term Agenda

Jan 31 , 2013
  • Fu Mengzi

    VP, China Institutes of Contemporary Int'l Relations

On January 21st, Barack Obama started his second term as President of the United States. Usually a re-elected President shows more continuity in their foreign policy, but Obama may make some readjustments, including to policies towards China.

In recent years, the power of the United States weakened due to the financial crisis and slow economic growth. However, the objective of pursuing a global leadership position has not changed. Except, now there are more talks about reviving the US’ position and reshaping its global leadership. With relatively faster economic growth, the overall strength of China has continued to grow, moving its position higher in US global strategy.

During President Obama’s second term, China will become even more prominent in US foreign policy decisions pertaining to international institutions, multilateral or regional interactions and major power relations. As far as the overall approach is concerned, the Obama Administration may to a certain extent contract its global stretch with efforts concentrated on rising powers.

China is by itself key to this strategic approach. In Obama’s first term, the “pivot to Asia” strategy has progressed in the military field, where containing or offsetting Chinese influence is an unmistakable strategic consideration. US involvement in China’s disputes with its neighbors over islands in the South China Sea and elsewhere have increased strategic mutual suspicion between China and the US. The American strategic community knows very well what kind of tension and danger may follow. The strategy of returning to Asia Pacific will not change. However, it will not focus solely on the military field, but rather advance in the economic, political and diplomatic fields.

Consistent with the strategy to rebalance the Asia Pacific, US policy towards China is also going to rebalance in President Obama’s second term. As there is high-level interdependence between China and the US, the bilateral relationship should be administered more steadily.

Since Obama was re-elected, the US has on different occasions expressed the expectation to maintain cooperation with the new Chinese leadership and the willingness to work with China to manage and control differences and competition, in particular by using existing channels of communication such as the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. In his speech on November 19, 2012, Jeffrey Bader, former senior director of the National Security Council, argued that Obama’s China policy is in broad terms consistent with that of his predecessors. Since President Nixon, the United States has maintained a welcoming attitude towards China’s rise, a willingness to accept a larger role for China internationally and an insistence that China’s rise be consistent with international lows and norms. According to Bader, China-US relations will be smoother during Obama’s second term and the trilateral relationship between the US and the two sides of the Taiwan Straits will develop positively. On November 15, 2012, when talking about Obama’s Asia policy, National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon said that the US relationship with China is an element of US strategy because China’s participation in all major international and regional affairs is essential. Generally speaking, the US side expects the development of constructive cooperation with China in the coming four years.

It is noteworthy that today’s China-US relationship is no longer asymmetrical, in which one may have to seek favors from the other. This is true of the bilateral relationship as well, especially in dealing with critical challenges to mankind such as climate change. China’s ability to shape its relationship with the US is unprecedented. Obviously any readjustment of US policy towards China will be related to Chinese policy towards the US, which will demonstrate more continuity. As the US exerts major influence over China and vice versa, it is quite unlikely for the two countries to collide with each other directly as there are still opportunities to further strengthen the bilateral relationship.

In the coming years, stabilizing bilateral relations will be a basic policy approach of both China and the US. Currently, there are 97 established dialogue mechanisms between China and the US, a practical expression of the bilateral relationship’s influence in every aspect of life. All dialogues can serve as useful platforms to express opinions, defuse differences and enhance collaboration, leading to more mutual trust and cooperation. Among these mechanisms, the Strategic and Economic Dialogue plays a particularly important role in communications. Although, leadership may change with new administrations, the mechanisms for dialogue will remain and strengthen.

Fu Mengzi, Vice President, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

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